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How Climate Change is Affecting Your Pet

Someday, in the not-so-far-off future, we may be calling flea and tick season flea and tick year. Here in Minnesota we’re used to a six-month or more reprieve from creepy crawlies, but are they moving closer to being year-round guests?

Climate change gets a lot of press for creating extreme weather and threatening coasts with rising tides, but a problem that isn’t often discussed is the risk to our pets.

The problem? As the climate heats up, it’s become less unusual to find warm days in traditionally cold months, which means that ticks and fleas are finding the world a more hospitable place and our dogs, cats and small animals (like rabbits) have better odds of catching diseases spread by fleas and ticks.

Here’s what to expect as far as climate change and fleas and ticks are concerned

Fleas and Ticks Are Expanding Their Territory

As temperatures rise, certain areas of the country are becoming more inviting to fleas and ticks. This might explain why ticks that can spread Lyme disease have been making their way north through Europe for the last 30 years and west through the United States into once tick-free states like Oregon. Meanwhile, the population of black-legged ticks (which transfer Lyme and other diseases) has approximately doubled in the last two decades. Twenty years ago, we did not have them in Minnesota – and now we do.

While climate change appears to be the primary cause for the spread of ticks and fleas, other factors may be at play. Urban sprawl (in which humans and pets move to far-flung areas and bring ticks and fleas with them), and the rise of the white-tailed deer population, for instance, encourage the spread of parasites. As suburban sprawl increases, human interaction with wildlife like coyotes and opossums increases, with concurrent interaction with the parasites they carry.

Climate change as a single agent may affect tick populations more than fleas. Ticks live in the environment. Fleas live on their hosts (meaning your pet). So while the world around your pet is changing, the fleas on your pet live in a fairly stable environment. This is not to say that a warmer planet won’t have some effect on flea populations, but it may be more indirect, and unpredictable.

An Increase in Flea and Tick-Borne Illnesses

Naturally, if flea and tick season – warmer months like summer and fall – lasts longer, the odds increase that your pet could catch a disease. Above 34 degrees or so, ticks can move around, and you may get bitten. (Have you seen any ticks yet this year?)

The types of flea and tick-borne diseases your dog or cat is at risk for include the well-known Lyme disease, of course, but also other lesser-known but equally serious diseases such as anaplasmosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, canine hepatozoonosis, and tularemia, a serious and little-known but increasingly common disease in cats.

Yesterday’s flea and tick treatments are no longer effective, and today’s treatments won’t treat tomorrow’s flea and ticks. The parasites will adapt to the ingredients in the medications and survive, requiring constant revising of existing medications and constant development of new ones.

Still, fleas and ticks will endanger a lot of pets and people as the planet’s climate warms. That means being militant about using flea and tick preventatives year-round. It also means taking your dog or cat to the vet for regular check-ups and not hesitating to go when something is amiss.

By Kathy Rausch, DVM

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